To achieve long-term goals, focus on the short term

Alina Dizik | Jul 21, 2016

If you’re running a marathon, writing a novel, or trying to get healthy, try focusing on short-term rewards. These can help you achieve that goal, research indicates.

According to a study by Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach and Booth PhD candidate Kaitlin Woolley, immediate rather than delayed rewards inspire people to achieve long-term goals. The findings could help people motivate themselves and others. 

“Although pursuit of long-term goals is primarily motivated by the desire to receive delayed rewards, we find consistent evidence that immediate rewards are stronger predictors of persistence in goal related activities,” they write.

In a study, the researchers asked 80 gym goers to fill out a short survey about the immediate and long-term benefits of their exercise. The study asked whether participants enjoyed the day’s workout (a short-term reward) and felt it was useful to keep fit (a long-term reward). The researchers then compared participants’ answers with the number of minutes they spent on cardio machines.

People who persisted with their cardio workouts were the ones who reported receiving immediate rewards from the workout. “The importance of having a fun workout better predicts the amount of time they spend exercising,” according to the researchers.

Long-term benefits are still important, of course. They can help someone set goals—for example, you might start exercising because you want to achieve the long-term reward of good health.

But if need be, modify your workout to increase your short-term rewards. “For example, a person can listen to music while exercising to increase the immediate rewards he receives from working out,” the researchers write. “Maximizing the presence of immediate rewards when pursuing long-term goals, rather than relying on the importance of the goal to carry him through, should increase goal persistence.”